Any discussion about WSU football over the last two seasons has always had a caveat: "... but, they're young." The Cougars are starting, and playing, youth at nearly every position group on the field. Unfortunately, the same can now be said for quarterback this Saturday.
Redshirt freshman Luke Falk stepped in after a gruesome injury to starter/recorder-holder/team-leader Connor Halliday and acquitted himself well against the Trojans. Even Coach Mike Leach said he surprised them with how well he played.
Now, with a full week of preparation, how might the Oregon State defense scheme to beat him?
The game is still fast for an inexperienced quarterback. No matter the intensity in practice or Thursday Night Football, game speed will always be a different animal and it takes some time just to get acclimated. This gives a defense some advantages.
At the line
The running game for WSU is almost entirely called by the quarterback at the line and is dictated by defensive alignment. The quarterback needs only to count defenders in "the box". The box stretches laterally from offensive tackle to offensive tackle, and extends out to linebacker depth, or around four to five yards. As the team approaches the line, the QB will count defenders in the box as the first check in his pre-snap read.
If the offense is in 10 personnel (1 RB), and there are five defenders or less, he can make a run check. Why five? It's five offensive lineman versus five defenders, hat on a hat, and if they do their job, the offense has the advantage inside. Where to run it and what line calls (blocking assignments) are made by the center complicate things a little, but essentially, it is that simple. And that's where OSU could make things difficult.
Alignment can still fool an inexperienced guy, where a veteran might see though it. Look for OSU's linebackers to be active. Moving alignment in and out of the box pre-snap -- playing outside and stunting in, playing in and dropping to coverage -- likely will add some confusion for Falk before the snap, and it's something that nearly led to an interception against USC.
In the play, Mike (middle linebacker) shows pressure over center and bails at the snap to his middle zone, reading Falk's eyes.
OSU will want to make him uncomfortable, unsure of his play call. Falk showed a little more favoritism for going to the run than Halliday did, so I'd expect the Beavers to make those reads challenging for him. Moving alignment is a relatively simple adjustment for a defense that could cause all sorts of havoc for the offense, and on Falk's confidence, if he and his center aren't on the same page with where a run should go and how it should be blocked.
Falk also showed a great pocket presence against USC; he sensed pressure extremely well and had excellent footwork sliding and climbing the pocket to avoid it. This should change OSU's plan to stunt a little. Halliday was a different quarterback; he delivered the ball so fast, getting to him quickly was a priority for the defense. And Halliday wasn't exactly the most mobile guy so you didn't have to worry about him getting outside on a scramble. Teams brought pressure the quickest way they could, stunting A or B gaps up the middle to try and flush him to make a poor decision on the move.
That strategy might not be as well-suited for Falk, who moves well with his eyes downfield and is a little better throwing on the run. Look for more stunts off the edge as they try to collapse the pocket around him and keep outside leverage.
In the secondary
Another way defenses take advantage of inexperienced quarterbacks is by disguising coverage -- make their reads harder by confusing them. When the game's moving fast for a guy, it's harder to identify coverage during a play; defenders can come out of nowhere if you don't see it pre-snap. Oregon State has a pretty decent secondary, but we shouldn't expect them to have a drastically different game plan for Falk than they would Halliday.
Teams have played a lot of two-man -- man-to-man coverage underneath with two high safeties preventing anything deep -- and that was in large part due to Connor's arm strength. Falk doesn't quite have the strength Halliday does (not a knock, few in college do), and showed he was extremely comfortable playing within the system and taking whatever was open underneath. OSU could forego safety help to have another guy sit on intermediate routes, leaving the corners on an island with deep routes.
The past two years, the Beavers have played an aggressive Nickel package against WSU, with a robber (typically a nickel corner or strong safety type player) jumping underneath intermediate crossing routes and blowing up screens to the outside. How a team defends the Air Raid in coverage shouldn't drastically change based on the quarterback, but expect them to gamble a little more on jumping underneath routes until Falk proves he can beat them deep in one-on-one coverage.
Falk's had some time in the offense and it showed last Saturday. He orchestrated some good drives, and looked to have command of what was going on around him. Against OSU, look for some different pressure up front and a secondary that plays a little tighter in coverage than WSU is used to.
Oregon State is entirely beatable, and with a team full of youngsters, notching a division win could make all the difference in the world for their confidence going forward.